You would think it a general rule of thumb not to steal from Liam Neeson, whether it be his daughter or his identity—he will find you and he will kill you.  Europe ain’t getting the message, because Neeson is hunting down its baddies again.

He plays Dr. Martin Harris en route to a biotechnology conference with his wife Liz (January Jones).  After arriving in Berlin, he and his wife take a taxi to their hotel and an important briefcase is left behind.  Martin realizes he’s forgotten it upon arriving at the hotel and decides to grab another cab and head back to retrieve it without so much as a word to his wife.  Bad choice, Doc.  A major car wreck sends Harris’ cab flying into a river and leaving him with a serious head injury.  He wakes up four days later in a hospital without anyone looking for him.  He hurriedly returns to the hotel to reunite with his wife, but there’s a problem: she doesn’t recognize him.  No one knows him.  In fact, there is another man with his wife who claims to be ‘Dr. Martin Harris.’  Is the Doc crazy?  Only the woman who drove his cab (Diane Kruger) and saved his life may be able to help him as he races against his own sanity (and a horde of assassins) to prove his identity.

Here is the short review for those who want a summation before I delve into spoilers: Unknown is a good movie that turns sour—a smart concept and an engaging thriller that takes a turn for Stupidville and never recovers.  Neeson is a commanding lead regurgitating his role from Taken, and the action sequences and mystery thrills deliver most of the time, but none of it helps the dopey turns of the plot.  Readers planning to see this film SHOULD NOT READ ANY FURTHER.

Here’s a film that demands its twists and conclusion to be discussed and examined—not because they’re good, but because they are not good.  If Taken didn’t contain enough similarities to The Bourne Identity, then Unknown makes sure both films are represented in full.  Liam Neeson’s character spends a lot of time chasing loose ends.  After his accident, he has no formal identification, photos, or a cell phone that proves he is himself.  A screenwriter can only conjure up a handful of scenarios to explain the situation.  And in hindering the plot, the screenwriters become desperate to reveal an orchestrated assassination attempt at the middle of everything.  You see, Neeson is an assassin with a severe case of amnesia and when undergoing his head trauma, he wakes from his coma having taken on the identity of his cover ‘Dr. Martin Harris.’  He actually believes he is this fictional person.  The trauma also transforms his personality.  He has now become a warm-blooded humanitarian as opposed to the cold-blooded killer he once was.  His agency sent in a replacement assassin to take over for him, and instead of swiftly killing ‘Harris,’ they try to poison him, capture him, and even go so far as to explain to him his obscure condition.  If that isn’t enough, Neeson’s character returns to the scene at the film’s climax to admit he is an assassin who planted a bomb that could take out an important political figure and he decides to lay waste to his former team members.  Oh, and then he escapes the disaster and takes on a new identity.  I was hoping they would show his face on every news program in the country.  Alas, not to be.

Further developments make the film’s conclusion even more laughable, but I’ll stop here.  Unknown is worth a redbox rental and might as well be a follow-up to Taken, even if it’s not as good.  The big reveal simply makes the plot too large of a grab-bag of holes that can not be explained away in any logical sense.  But, hey, I could watch Neeson, the latest unlikely action star (in his mid-50s!), in this type of role 100 times over before I tired of it.  Take that as you will.

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Inglourious Basterds

I B Teaser 1-Sht.Few cinematic visionaries have an eye and an ear quite like Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a brand of his own.  When you sit down for one of his movies, you know that the experience of it will be quite different from any other piece of filmmaking not of his craft.  Tarantino is a storyteller through and through, possibly a little self-indulgent in his work and overly animated in his regard for gratuitous violence, but he has a talent for originality from concept to execution.  “Inglourious Basterds” surpasses all of his recent works.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the previous incarnation of “Inglorious Bastards,” but I will say I doubt there can be much comparison based on Tarantino’s signature style and knack for meaty ongoing dialogue.  Much of “Basterds” is just that: a lot of style and talky-talky.  But, like all Tarantino works, the dialogue is so interesting, well-thought-out, and well-delivered that it really absorbs the audience.  Many scenes in the film are built around conversation and the tension often skyrockets.  The actual plot (or plots) of the film seem to exist as an afterthought when the written page onscreen has us so wrapped up.


Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa

I will admit I underestimated the storyline for this film.  I assumed (based on the marketing) that Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine, and his group of soldiers would spend 2 1/2 hours trekking through WWII Germany hunting, mutilating, torturing, and beating Nazis to bloody pulps.   Well there is some of that, yes, and some of it is very gratuitous and very violent.  Ultimately, that’s not the meat of the story.  Like all Tarantino movies, he constructs these sub-plots that intersect into one final meeting for the characters.  And that is the case here as well.  The movie opens with with a group of Nazi soldiers searching for Jews in hiding.  The Nazi leader, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), drills a dairy farmer for suspected harboring of a missing Jewish family, which the farmer has secretly been doing.  Upon the family’s discovery, Col. Landa orders them to be executed.  One of the younger girls of the family manages to escape and carries the horror of that day with her, until four years later she has an opportunity to avenge her family, which plays into the other developments of the story.  This particular scene reaches an unbelievable amount of tension and is, truthfully, beyond spectacular.  Heartbreaking, yes, but unbelievably effective.  Besides Tarantino’s expert penmanship, due credit belongs to Christoph Waltz’s slithering, brilliant performance–one that will guarantee him an Oscar nomination come year’s end.  Every time he’s onscreen, there is an unsettling sensation running through your veins, and he has many scenes to steal the show.

inglorious picThe Basterds’ chapter comes in after that setup.  As promised by all the commercials and trailers, Brad Pitt’s (who is hugely funny here) slurring southern Leuitenant calls upon him eight soldiers–experts in Nazi killin’.  Among the most recognizable faces are B.J. Novak from ‘The Office’, and Eli Roth (director of Cabin Fever and Hostel).  Roth is the only ‘actor’ in the film that doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It feels very much like an extended cameo by a filmmaker, and it never quite works for the overall look and feel of the movie.  It’s not that he hinders the movie per se, but his presence and performance fail to mesh with everything else.  And that’s hard to do in a film where Tarantino lets anything fly as he totally rewrites history in scene after scene, amounting to sheer brilliance for the most part.

“Inglourious Basterds” is not just violent, or bloody, but it’s also quite humorous, as Tarantino turns Hitler into a cry-baby cartoon, and then saddles every character with outrageous, gut-busting dialogue.  Listen to Brad Pitt pronounce “Bonjour-no” trying to masquerade through a Nazi gathering as an Italian.  Many viewers will walk away offended by the treatment of WWII and the Holocaust as presented here, but this movie is all about fantasy.  This is an alternate-reality revenge-flick put upon the Nazi regime.  Think a successful version of “Valkyrie” meets “Pulp Fiction” meets “Man on Fire.”  The tone of “Basterds” almost works perfectly, but Tarantino does let his scenes run on for some extended length, which make for a very long movie.   Almost every frame actually does work, but as usual for its writer-director, this movie takes its sweet old time.

I can’t complain too much.  This is the work of a filmmaking pioneer, like it or not.  Quentin Tarantino’s short resume has revolutionized cinema to some extent.  “Inglourious Basterds” is a welcome return to greatness we haven’t seen since 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and one of the few great films we’ve been granted this summer.  As a whole, this movie is a bit hit-and-miss, but mostly an awesome, violent, bloody, hilarious, history-rewriting event that should not be missed.

-MJV & the Movies

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